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Honorary Professor of PKU Chang Hsin-Kang: Roaming Amongst Civilizations

SEP . 14 2021
Peking University, Sept 14, 2021: On September 11th, Yenching Academy Peking University held the opening ceremony 2021. Former President of City University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Honorary Professor of PKU Chang Hsin-Kang delivered a keynote speech titled Roaming Amongst CivilizationsFull text reads as follows.

Professor Yuan, Professor Hass, Colleagues and Students:

It is an honor and a privilege to participate in Yenching Academy's opening ceremony of the 2021 academic year. It is of course a pleasure for me to meet the talented young scholars from dozens of countries. 

The fact that I am participating in this ceremony while in North America says two things about human civilization today: First, modern human civilization is already so advanced that a person in a private home in North America can be heard and seen via electromagnetic signals with almost no delay or distortion. This is indeed an enormous achievement of the human race which has inhabited this 4.5-billion-year old planet for about 4.5 million years, namely, during only the last 0.1% of the earth's existence. Second, the reason that we need to resort to the latest communication technology for today's ceremony is due to the simplest self-reproducing organic being, viruses, which have existed on this planet much, much longer than humans. 

Sadly, more than 4 million humans have died and over 200 million have become sick due to the pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. As of now, we still don't know enough about the various mutations of this virus, but a significant proportion of the human race has begun to fight one another instead of the virus.

This reminds me of a well-known experiment in behavioral psychology:  A group of mice are put in a metal cage and fed regularly with food and water; overall, they live in the cage reasonably peacefully. However, when an electrical current is introduced to run through the metal cage, some mice start to fight violently due to the pain caused by the electrical current. 

We humans are supposed to be more intelligent than the mice. That's why we use them to study behavioral psychology, not the reverse. 

However, whenever I see TV footage showing crowds that claim not to believe in the pandemic, refuse to wear masks and oppose vaccination, and that assault onlookers who hold different views, I can't help but think of the mice experiment. 

Now, let us recall some historical facts:

Early humans who already knew how to make tools and use fire appeared in some regions of the earth more than 1.5 million years ago. Modern humans called homo sapiens started to populate many parts of the earth about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Roughly 10,000 years ago, an "agricultural revolution" occurred in several regions of the earth when humans began to produce food rather than rely on hunting and gathering to sustain life.  Not long after this, sufficient food was produced in some locales so that large-scale settlements appeared.  These led to sedentary and complex societies. Many scholars call this the beginning of human civilization.

About 5000 years ago, nomadic groups across the Eurasian steppes began large-scale animal husbandry and often had surpluses to support larger groups.  But they could not stay in one place for long.  Therefore, nomadic peoples did not construct elaborate buildings or make sophisticated handicrafts. Yet, since they moved constantly in search of new pasture, the nomadic peoples most likely were the ones to have begun metallurgical work and also started long-distance trading.  Therefore, nomadic peoples definitely contributed in the early days of human civilization.

In the last 4000 years or so, humans have tried to use reasoning along with purposeful observations to understand their physical as well as social environments. They established complex societies with different hierarchical structures and religious belief systems.  Diverse types of art and literature were also developed.

Anatomically and physiologically, humans today and those who lived 100,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, or 5000 years ago have been identical. The difference in lifestyle between us and our ancestors has been due to social, not biological, evolution.

Given the power of social evolution, let us consider further: 

Humans long ago already possessed the capacity for love, empathy, compassion as well as remorse and repentance. This would show that human beings are capable of establishing harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships, both at personal and societal levels. Yet, peace on earth and goodwill towards men have not been the main and enduring features in human history.

Why has there been such an obvious inconsistency?  Is the desire and propensity to fight one another embedded in human genes or imbued in human civilizations?  If human beings have modified their behavioral patterns due to social evolution in the past, can we not try to deepen and broaden this trend to make future human societies more harmonious and more cooperative with one another?

To the students who take part in the Opening Ceremony of Yenching Academy today, who are younger, brighter and have a lot more at stake than an old person like me, I say: The answer of this question rests upon you.

Trying to extend the social evolution that has carried us this far is of utmost importance for the next few generations, since climate change, pandemics and nuclear war could all lead to the destruction of human civilizations and possibly even the disappearance of humans from planet earth. Future leaders of various countries and societies must tackle these issues successfully because it is essential to the preservation of homo sapiens on this planet.

Not wanting to sound overly alarming, I will now switch to a more relaxed subject and share with you how I became a graduate student.

I graduated from Taiwan University in 1962, and during the compulsory military service, I applied and was accepted for graduate studies in the United States. When I completed the military service, I then needed to get a student visa to go to the United States.  Since my parents had worked for World Health Organization (WHO) in Ethiopia for nearly three years, a Chinese staff at the American Consulate told me that I'd increase my odds of obtaining a student visa hugely if I were to apply for such a visa in Ethiopia. 

After a few telegrams with my parents, it was decided I should first get a permit to visit my parents in Ethiopia.

Having gone through bureaucratic hurdles both in Taiwan and in Ethiopia, I set out to purchase an airplane ticket. Since my parents were going to pay a hefty sum for this "detour" on my way to the United States, the thoughtful travel agent in Taipei did his best to reserve seats for me on flights with long stop-overs, knowing that I'd be put up in local first-class hotels while "awaiting" my transfer.   

In July 1963, I unwittingly began what was to become a journey among the great civilizations of Asia, Africa and Europe. My first stop was Hong Kong, followed by Bangkok, Mumbai, Beirut, and the modern-day Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. After a two-day stay, I flew to Gondar, ancient capital of the Ethiopian Empire, where I reunited with my parents.

I will next show you some pictures of my Asia-Africa-Europe trip and also my first two years in the United States.






From 1977 to 1987, I had the opportunities to attend a number of academic conferences in quite a few countries in Europe and, for a period of three years, I was "obligated" to spend one-half month in Paris every three months in order to work on a project to develop a new method of artificial ventilation. In 1981-82, my family of four spent 12 months in the Parisian suburb of Créteil where Henri Mondor Hospital-University Center was located.  Our family took full advantage of the weekends and holidays to visit many places in Western Europe, and our two children benefitted greatly from their studies at the local French schools.

From 1990 to 2007 when I began my retirement, I made more visits in Asia, Africa and Europe.  So far, I have visited every country in Asia except Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait; every country in Europe except Iceland, Lithuania, Belarus and Moldova.

"The Silk Road” is now virtually a household word. Millions of people all over the world wish to view and personally experience it. In fact, it was only in the mid-19th century that a few German geographers started to use the term "Die Seidenstrasse" (The Silk Road) to designate this venerable network of ancient commercial passages from East to West Asia.

In my fourth-grade textbook in Taiwan, there was a story about the court scribe Ben Chao who set aside his writing brush to enlist in the army during the Eastern Han. Later my father also told me that many Europeans and Japanese were keenly intrigued by the Silk Road, and many a scholar had done research on the Silk Road pioneered by Zhang Qian during Western Han Dynasty. That was the first time I heard the term “Silk Road"; I yearned to “do” the Silk Road someday.

In 1987, I finally had the opportunity to travel from Lanzhou to Urumqi and Kashgar via Gansu’s Jiayu Pass and Dunhuang, home to the Mogao Caves. It was a rare opportunity at the time. It became my hobby to learn about the Silk Road, and over the years I bought many books and airline tickets to realize my dream.

After retiring in Hong Kong in early summer 2007, I decided to make civilizations along the Silk Road — or cultural exchange across the Eurasian continent--- my "new specialization."

My last few series of tours before COVID-19 hit us had been to Central Asia, East Siberia and the Gulf states in 2015, East Africa and East Mediterranean in 2016, Turkmenistan and Iran in 2017, Vietnam, Japan, Inner Mongolia in China, southern France and Sweden in 2018, and the United Kingdom, Ireland, along the Volga River of Russia as well as Indonesia and East Timor in 2019.

I will now show you some photos of my travels in 2018 and 2019.

Hoi An,Vietnam

Hulunbuir, China

Dublin, Ireland

London, UK

My younger grandson sat down with me a few years ago and count
ed the number of countries I had visited. I can now let him know the latest statistics: 104 countries in the world (81 in Asia and Europe) over 58 years.

If I were asked today to sum up in one sentence the historical significance of 2,000 years of cultural commingling throughout Eurasia, without hesitation I would say:

A society evolves and thrives when it is open and inclusive,
willing and accustomed to interacting with and learning from different peoples.

I hope you will all be accustomed to interacting with and learning from different peoples!

Thank you! 

Edited by: Zhang Jiang